Whenever I travel, it is with a set of vague notions in mind. I cast around haphazardly in the months prior to the trip, collecting and book-marking stuff online, following people on twitter who are located at the destination and reading literature by the region's writers. However, what I collect, I may not even read. And I wouldn't presume to directly intrude on tweeps newly-followed by asking for tips. I'm too lazy, too, to write notes about the place from the books I read.
Yet somehow little inklings stick. And better still, sometimes they surface at exactly the right time and right place.
Porto, Portugal was a recent case in point. While trundling alongside the Duoro River on Porto's number 1 tram, something like intuition kicked in. "A fishing village...over there," I said vacantly to my travelling companions, pointing across to the other side of the river. With more acuity, I approached the tram driver for instructions about how we might get across there.
Right place, right time. We were to get off at the very next stop to intersect with the local ferry at a little dock where fishermen were picking river weed out of their nets. We drank a beer procured from the dock's kiosk, run by a mildly eccentric woman with several freezers for fish and an accompanying nuisance of cats. Every time I raised the bottle to my lips, I could smell fish, perhaps even cat's pee.
After a one beer wait, the boat moored to collect us for the crossing. It was nearing midday so any chance of witnessing the early morning return of fishing vessels was long gone. The purpose of this excursion remained a romantic figment of my naive itinerary 'planning.' I have been known to drag these same friends on such quests in previous trips and, while I may not communicate exactly what it is we're going to encounter, they normally surmise that food will be involved. Because they know me.
If it's a fishing village, there will be fish about somewhere. Or a pretty boat.
We wandered the streets of a community where the men at least were done with work for the day. I could feel them sleeping behind the distinctive tiled housefronts. Others were drinking beer or coffee, not quite sure if it's late at night or early in the morning; permanently 'fish-lagged'. It was turning out to be a sleepy atmosphere perhaps not given to a lunchtime feed of fresh fish. My instincts were proving to be off on this occasion.
Until I noticed a plume of smoke wafting from a street corner in the distance. It was blowing from a barbeque and a fresh pile of sardines was nearby, ready for a crisping.
We didn't bother asking for a menu. The grill was also hosting green capsicums, their blackening flakes of skin almost ready to be rubbed off. With a combination of poorly pronounced Portuguese niceties and some rather greedy pointing with fingers attached to a body with eyes too big for the belly, we found ourselves seated at a communal trestle table, fish order placed, cork popped from the vinho verde, waiting in anticipation.
A customary appetiser of Portuguese cod fritters and a green salad generously draped in the still-warm green capsicums served as stopgap. As other patrons began filling the fish house inside and out, my anticipation was replaced by a feeling, again vague, that this experience was possibly turning into one of those meals of significance, a definite highlight of the holiday and one that could be looked back on nostalgically in years to come.
And then the deal was sealed. Plates of crisped up sardines, skins all salty goodness, came to table with lemon. A skewer so long it overhung the plate got put down too, its impalement of prawns, squid, red capsicum and onion ready to be liberated.
I was giddy.
Now, as I write, I am still giddy. This meal has been ruminating in my mind ever since. But I can't go through with further description. Words on the actual eating would somehow be superfluous and clichéd, an insult to an educated eater. Let me just say that the confluence of location, holiday sensibility, osmotic instinct and wine made this meal in Afurada, Portugal, a seafood epiphany for me.
One day I will go back.
Taberna do Sao Pedro
Rua Costa Goodolfim, 42
Vila Nova de Gaia